The fizz biz The Champagne region of France has had a long and illustrious history of women who have left their mark on the wine world.
First and foremost is Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicquot (née Ponsardin), whose motto, "only one quality, the finest", still resonates today. In 1805, at the age of 27, after the untimely death of her beloved husband, Francois, she took over the reins of the Clicquot family's companies, including the champagne house. With the help of her father-in-law, Philippe Clicquot, she brought the house bearing her name (" veuve" is French for "widow") great acclaim. She was one of the first to ship champagne to the East - China received 48 bottles of Veuve Clicquot in 1847, around the same time as the Treaty of Canton was signed between Sweden-Norway and Qiying, the viceroy of Liangguang. Perhaps the parties involved raised a glass of Veuve Clicquot as a toast.
The innovations Madame Clicquot brought to the wine-making process are still in use today. At the time, champagnes were cloudy, because of the second fermentation, which left residual yeast sediment in the bottle. Madame Clicquot created "riddling", a process that clarifies the wine by gradually turning the bottle upside down so the sediment settles at the neck. The sediment is removed by immersing the neck of the bottle in ice so it freezes, then quickly opening the stopper (a cap similar to that used on bottles of beer) so that the frozen plug of sediment is disgorged by the pressure from the bubbles. The bottle is then topped up with more wine and sealed with a champagne cork. Legend has it that she had holes drilled into her dining table to demonstrate the process to her cellar master. This innovation alone gave her champagnes superior distinction in the market.
Today, Veuve Clicquot's top cuvée is La Grande Dame, an award-winning homage to Madame Clicquot that is made only in the best years.
There are more recent examples of noted women in Champagne.
Carol Duval-Leroy has been the head of her family's house since the untimely passing of her husband, in 1991. She has raised quality, modernised production and expanded Champagne Duval-Leroy's vineyard holdings to more than 200 hectares in Vertus, one of the best villages in the Côte des Blancs. The house has been making champagnes since 1859. Duval-Leroy's top champagne, cuvée Femme de Champagne, comes in a distinctive bottle, reminiscent of those from the 1800s. Since its launch, in 1990, it has been made just four times - in 1990, 1995, 1996 and 2000. The grapes that go into Femme de Champagne are all from grand cru vineyards owned by Duval-Leroy.
Another champagne house of note is Guy de Chassey, in Louvois. It is helmed by Ingrid de Chassey and her brother, Vincent, who represent the seventh generation of their family to run the house. Their mother, Marie-Odile, widow of Guy de Chassey, took over when her husband passed away in 1993 and held true to his vision of their wine being a grower's champagne that respected its roots. When I met Ingrid, she told me that when she made her first vintage champagne (the 2008 extra brut), her mother found it very difficult not to interfere. Marie-Odile, who was also with us, could only smile and say that it was, indeed, difficult to let go, but she now knew, having tasted Ingrid's champagne, that she had taught her daughter well.
One lady of Champagne who summed up a life well lived despite its travails was Lily Bollinger, of Bollinger Champagne; she took over after her husband, Jacques, died during the Nazi occupation of the region. She famously said, "I drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.